THE TERM “MOTHER SUPERIOR” generally connotes superior powers of grace, compassion, authority, or even severity. Saleema Nawaz’s collection of short stories, Mother Superior, explores from many angles the lives of various women who, through perversity, ignorance, bad luck, or courage, take on the role of motherhood. Whether the right to conceive or to bear a child is something that a woman understands to be a gift, a curse, or a terror–this primal understanding lies at the heart of each of these stories. The unbearable grief of losing a child is also no small theme in this book.
The ironic title indicates the ambivalent exploratory theme in these seven stories and two novellas. Each story explores the often random route to choosing motherhood, examines reactions to pregnancy or to mothering, or the ways in which women mother. The limitless depth of this theme creates a challenging collection of fiction from a distinctive new voice. Nawaz adopts a thoughtful, introspective, often obsessive cadence in each tale. This is perhaps the greatest criticism; some of the stories lack tension, either entirely or in their sundry parts. Most are first person narratives, with the exception of Scar Tissue and The Beater. Perhaps that explains why these are the two weakest stories. However, Nawaz has created narrators who are engaging in their frankness, introducing us intimately to each strong, intelligent persona.
All of Nawaz’s characters are presented as solitary figures, existing on the fringes of their social environments, often claustrophobically isolated within family units set apart in some way. Often they are women struggling with grief or identity crisis provoked by the dramatic loss or profound fear of loss of someone close to them, usually a mother or a sister. These stories are either directly or implicitly critical of society’s role as a cruel force in its scrutiny of those it perceives as being inferior — other. Whether the character is lesbian, obese, an unwed mother, bulimic, a prostitute, or a child suffering the horrors of racism, these characters and their relationship to pregnancy and motherhood or to love and/or sexuality are adroitly examined in Mother Superior.
Nawaz provides many moments of sly amusement as well as tragedy, particularly in Bloodlines. A moving story saying much about the human condition in the fewest, most apt words, Bloodlines is a true achievement. Grief and its destructive impact is the theme in this story, and handled with the utmost simplicity and grace. Nawaz has written an ambitious book that succeeds in delivering telling details and sensitive nuances, moral ambiguities, and intriguing sexual personae. The importance of touch in the lives of humans — the touching of spirit and of skin — Nawaz renders delightfully well. Any shortcomings in some of the individual stories of Mother Superior are more than compensated for by the rare talent displayed in the collection as a whole. Therefore, Nawaz’s Mother Superior was a natural nominee for QWF’s McAuslan First Book Prize; her story “My Three Girls”, from Mother Superior, is on the shortlist for the Journey Prize.
Montreal writer Kate Orland Bere is currently working on a collection of short stories entitled Shameless. She writes about books, film and music for the Rover.